BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Paraphrasing from the Persian ...

This is a perfect example of why I love picking up those Dover Thrift Editions to fill in holes in my education … now, of course I knew of The Rubáyát of Omar Khayyám, and certainly was familiar with the more famous excerpts from it, but I'm pretty sure I'd never read it, and I certainly didn't know about it, at least to the extent I do after reading the introductory materials here.

While the source material of the book originates with an 11th century Persian “mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher” (who was not known as a poet during his life, but it seems that the core writings of this were in his papers, and over the centuries more and more material was “attributed' to him). What is an eye opener in Edward FitzGerald's The Rubáyát of Omar Khayyám: First and Fifth Editions is that its translator was actually more of an interpreter of the material, and that what we know as “The Rubáyát” (which pretty much is Arabic for “quatrains”) is really FitzGerald's “take” on the original rather than an attempt to make a literal translation, making the “classic” work an expression of 19th century English composition instead of an work of Sufi poetry the likes of Rumi.

It at first seemed odd that this slim volume would contain two editions of FitzGerald's work, the first edition (1859) and the fifth edition (1889), but by including both it allows one to take a look at what was happening here. First of all, when this initially came out, it was an anonymous translation, purporting to be Omar Khayyám's writings … in fact, FitzGerald's hand in the “translation” did not come to light until 1875, prior to the fourth edition in 1879. FitzGerald died in 1883, but he had “marked up” a copy of the fourth edition, and this served as the basis of the posthumous fifth edition.

There are significant differences between the first and the fifth editions, with the former having only 75 quatrains, and the latter 101. Of these only 12 were the same (with only punctuation and capitalization changes) between editions, and 3 of the first's are missing (or sufficiently “spread out” over other quatrains as to be unidentifiable), #37, #38, and #45, with 28 “new” quatrains in the fifth edition (two of the fifth's, #83 and #87 use half of the first's #60, thus bringing the total up to 101). Most of the new material appears between #38 and #53 in the fifth (which come in a gap between the first's #36 and #39), with most of the the fifth's 60's new (but for #63 which is a version of the first's #26).

Many of the quatrains are only slightly changed between the versions, with (as noted) 12 being basically unchanged, and another 20 having only 1 line out of 4 differing, and only 10 exhibiting changes to all four lines. However, one would expect that if this were a translation, especially by the same person, there would be a lot more consistency. It seems that FitzGerald was more interested in having the poems “live” than having them express exactly what the Persian sources said, and so there was a lot of trying to create a poetic expression that was over-riding any literalism.

To take an example, here's a quatrain that probably provides the most famous line from The Rubáyát“A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou” … in both its versions:

I – 11
Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou
      Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.


V – 12
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou
      Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Obviously, with a book of this vintage and renown there are many free versions to be found (just do a Google book search), but I found the juxtaposition of these two editions here quite charming, as they do provide a window onto the reality of this “paraphrasing” by an English writer of the medieval original. Of course, one of the other “charming” things about the Dover Thrift books is that they're so inexpensive, this has a cover price of a mere $2.00 … which is very handy when one's on-line order is not quite at $25 to get free shipping and you're not wanting to throw in another “regular” book! Aside from those concerns, the poetry itself is quite enticing, as FitzGerald really did a very nice job of making the quatrains “live” in English. It's something you should keep in mind for that next order.

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Tags: book review
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